Declining undergraduate enrollment is among the many blows suffered by colleges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Figures from the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicate that immediate college enrollment fell by 6.8% in fall 2020, meaning fewer high school graduates started college right away compared with fall 2019. Those numbers are especially dire for community colleges, which saw a 13.2% decline in fall enrollment of high school graduates from the class of 2020.
Additionally, graduates who attended high-minority and high-poverty high schools were less likely to enroll in college.
Many 2020 high school graduates “made decisions to go into the workforce rather than to attend college because of some of the financial impacts that their families have (experienced) related to COVID-19,” says Angela Johnson, vice president of enrollment management at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio.
Higher education experts note that some prospective students who were better off financially may have taken gap years because they were unwilling to attend colleges that pivoted almost entirely to online classes. Other prospective students, particularly those from low-income households, had to enter the workforce to meet basic economic needs.
“They were pretty much doing anything they could to try to make money and to help support their families,” says Iris Palmer, a senior adviser for higher education and the workforce at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “This idea that they could go to college was something that just didn’t feel possible, given the circumstances for a lot of students.”
While numbers improved slightly for the spring 2021 semester, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that overall enrollment across all of higher education is down by 4.2% compared with data from the prior year.
Higher ed professionals say there are still open seats this fall as well as available scholarships and housing, meaning those who deferred admission in fall 2020 can still enroll before the next school year gets underway.
How to Enroll in College After a Break From School
Graduates of the class of 2020 — or anyone who has taken a break before enrolling in college — may have fewer resources if they lack access to high school counselors who can help them navigate the admissions process.
But admissions officers say colleges can help.
Johnson describes the college website as the “virtual front door” for students. Starting there can help applicants get a sense of costs, programs and the particulars of the admissions process. She also encourages students to visit campus.
“What you’re really trying to determine is a sense of belonging,” Johnson says.
Jeffrey Baylor, executive director of admissions at West Texas A&M University, echoes that point. Beyond the admissions office, he encourages students to stop by the financial aid office to learn more about paying for college.
“They then have an opportunity to talk about the process, talk about the financial resources available to them, and also to learn about the areas of study that they’re interested in,” Baylor says. He adds that West Texas A&M has a checklist in its online admissions portal that students can follow to make sure they’re doing everything needed to apply and enroll.
“They would do all the same things that a prospective student might do typically as they enter their senior year of high school,” explains Jane Dané, associate vice president for enrollment management at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
However, she adds that applicants need to check those traditional senior year admissions boxes at an accelerated pace given the approach of the fall semester.
While the annual National College Decision Day when students commit to a school is May 1, many institutions will continue to take applications throughout the summer. A database maintained by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows around 450 schools still accepting applications for fall, as of publication.
Some colleges may also ease the admissions process by offering incentives to prospective students who deferred in 2020.
“One of the solutions is if they didn’t come in the fall (of 2020) we still would offer them, for example, a freshman scholarship, if they started in the spring or fall of this coming year,” Baylor says.
At Old Dominion, Dané notes that 2020 high school graduates who applied but did not enroll can reactivate their application without paying an additional fee. Per numbers shared by Dané, some of the class of 2020 graduates are headed to campus this fall. About 6.5% of the incoming class for ODU took a year off between high school and college, which is roughly double what the university has seen in the last two admissions cycles.
How a College Degree Pays Off
Higher education experts stress that a college degree pays off in terms of earnings over the course of a lifetime. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, indicates that workers with a bachelor’s degree brought home $1,305 in median weekly earnings in 2020 compared with $781 for workers with only a high school diploma.
Additionally, BLS data shows that workers with higher educational attainment were less likely to be unemployed last year.
“On aggregate, it is very beneficial to have a postsecondary credential in the labor market,” Palmer says. “There are obviously exceptions to everything, but in general, if you go and get a college degree, you’re not going to regret it. And you’re going to be in a better place financially.”
[Read: Is College Worth the Cost?]
As students and families work to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic, how to pay for college is a question that looms large. The first step, experts say, is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. Completing this form will help students understand their eligibility for federal financial aid.
Additionally, experts note that certain states also use the FAFSA to help determine how much state financial aid a student may be eligible to receive, and some colleges require the form for consideration of institutional aid.
Students who entered the workforce and plan to remain on the job after they enroll should check with their employer for tuition assistance programs, though experts note that the availability and structure of such programs vary.
“Some employers may have a set amount of dollars an employee can use every year, or a set amount of credit hours they take,” Johnson says. “In some cases, employers provide scholarships for their employees to use for their education. Sometimes the employee has to pay for the course and they get reimbursed based on how well they do in the course.”
Regardless of how a student plans to pay for college, experts note that the fall semester is drawing ever nearer, meaning that those who wish to enroll soon should get to work on the admissions process before the window for this year closes.
“My advice would be sooner is better than later,” Palmer says.
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Correction 06/07/21: A previous version of this article misstated Jane Dané’s title.